Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Too Much Information


Thursday, sitting in a doctor’s office, I watched him search online through a file that he (and fellow specialists) had compiled. After a time, he explained why he was having difficulty finding what he sought: the file had grown too big to search effectively. The phrase he used was “too much information.” This was a few days after I’d made a note to write this post.

We humans evolved to make sense out of disparate pieces of information. We weave stories out of seemingly unconnected events. We even see patterns where there are none (e.g., the gambler’s “system” for beating roulette). For millions of years we did this using a relatively constant level of incoming information. No more.

Not only is there far more information out there, it’s arrived in a single generation! Just adding blogs to websites yields a number approaching half a billion!! (That’s one for every 14 people on the planet.) Not only is there more information, but it’s more accessible: not just faster with broadband and wireless but closer with devices (phones, tablets, etc.) that come more readily to hand.

This year, after having been online since the mid-eighties, I came to the realization that searching the Internet had gotten worse. Now I find it successful only half the time. Friday, it took me half an hour online to discover that the pen refills I wanted to order could not be found in the bold point I preferred. Then, I realized I had learned this the last time I ordered refills—but I’d forgotten. And didn’t make a note.

The only way to deal with too much information is to cut it down to size. Since search engines aren’t interested in helping, it falls to us. Not simply by making our own notes, but creating our own categories and hierarchies. For three days now, my main task list has had a note to clean my bookmarks. (Especially removing out-of-date URLs.) Currently, the file is 2.5 Megabytes—that’s 168 pages! I really don’t know when I can do this. Too much information; too little time.

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